Gordon D’Arcy: Doubt has crept into All Blacks camp

Touring New Zealand is the hardest assignment on the rugby calendar, both on and off the pitch – an assertion that I am well qualified to comment on given that during my career I faced the All Blacks in their backyard on more occasions than I managed traveling to other southern hemisphere nations.

It might have been an even greater number, but I missed out on the 2002 tour to New Zealand in slightly unusual circumstances. In the early 2000s, Leinster were very much in the vapor trail of a successful Munster side and apart from one victory in the inaugural Celtic League final, our country cousins ​​were firmly in the ascendancy around that time.

From 2003 to their victory in the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final at Lansdowne Road, Munster won five of six matches between the provinces and it would be fair to say that Leinster did not possess a rugby roadmap to try to change our dismal form in knockout rugby; upsetting the form book was a rarity.

We drew 6-6 with Munster in an interprovincial match in April 2002, a dour, highlight-free tussle in which it was obvious that they were going through the motions somewhat, preoccupied by more lofty matters in Europe.

I had twisted my ankle quite badly in the run-up to the game, but bodies were thin on the ground and Leinster head coach Matt Williams asked me to strap up the damaged joint and play.

There was an additional attraction. I was given a chance to have a trot at fullback, which I still believed to be my best position. I was predominantly a winger at that stage and was in my second season trying to rehabilitate the perception of me within my peer group.

I played well and did enough to get a phone call to see if I could tour New Zealand that June. Just to put this into context, I hadn’t been included in an Irish squad since the 1999 Rugby World Cup, so it was a big deal for me.

Unfortunately, my ankle injury issue turned out to be an eight-week injury and I missed out on the tour. Matty and I were on the same page in that we assumed there was literally zero chance of me touring, so I’d play and then go on holidays. If I hadn’t played that game against Munster, I would have been fit but with no prospect of being selected, so it merely underlines the fickle nature of sport.

Geordan Murphy was incredible in that opening match. Brian O’Driscoll slotted a drop goal as Ireland lost 15-6 to the All Blacks before being on the receiving end of a right thumping in the second Test. That was to become a familiar pattern for Irish tours to New Zealand, competitive in the first and then eviscerated as they took it as an affront that we could put it up to them from time to time.

My first tour to New Zealand was in 2006 and I recall before leaving how much of a focus was put on launching a charm offensive as soon as we landed. There were so many social engagements pencilled into the diary, visits to schools and hospitals and function after function that it felt there was very little time for rugby.

The hoped for softening of the locals’ attitude never materialized. It was summed up in one moment as I walked back to the hotel in Auckland. I made a decent outside break to get around an elderly woman on a walking frame. I smiled at her and she just flat out abused me. Welcome to New Zealand.

It’s a pretty commonplace reaction when touring New Zealand where the public do everything to support their national team and that includes a relentless barracking of the opposition. There is a surface level civility for the most part, but you don’t have to be a mind reader to discover their true feelings. Given a gentle nudge they are happy to tell you.

Rugby is everything and everywhere in New Zealand. It is impossible to get away from what is an oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere when you are on the receiving end in matches. It becomes a grind, and every little ancillary issue is magnified.

We played there in the winter when the weather was often miserable, some of the accommodation and facilities were rudimentary and there was precious little to distract from the rugby in the smaller towns. None of this matters when you are winning but it is like a pebble in a shoe when you are being beaten from pillar to post.

The New Zealand public would chip away, asking if we genuinely thought we could beat their beloved All Blacks while shaking heads at the folly of such a notion; inquiries everywhere we went, several times a day, seven days a week. That questioning burned into the subconscious, sowing an element of self-doubt. When you never win you begin to suspect it is a pipe dream. We had nothing to cling to by way of victories.

The All Blacks win 77 per cent of matches. There is an expectation that comes with it, but it sat easily on broad shoulders in my day. They do nothing to camouflage an air of superiority that can often stray into the territory of arrogance. As an attitude, it is an anathema to Irish people, who are more likely to be apologetic in victory and try to be magnanimous.

New Zealand expect to win, so when they do, they do not apologize. You get thanked for the game, but you’ll never hear the phrase “hard luck” because that would be intimate, however slight, that you were ever in with a shout. The only time that differed was in 2013 when Ryan Crotty told me he loved my beard and that they had robbed us.

I think that mental fortitude is an important skill to acquire and is integral to successful sporting cultures. Joe Schmidt talked about understanding and trusting the process, so that you can expect to win. Remove the “if” from the sentence, the attention to detail coupled with the belief generated from good execution meant that we expected to win at various times.

Ireland travels to New Zealand facing the hardest tour schedule ever put together at the end of a long season, with several players struggling for fitness and form, and one or two set piece and back play concerns.

Despite that backdrop, and provided they successfully address the performance issues, I think Ireland could do well. It is predicated on winning the first two matches, against the Maori All Blacks and then the first Test, a large task but Ireland needs momentum from the get-go and to test that belief within the New Zealand camp.

For the first time in ages, there are few flecks of doubt in New Zealand having lost to Ireland and France last November, and, with one or two performance concerns surrounding the scrum and a preferred center pairing. While they still retain the individual brilliance of Will Jordan, Beauden Barrett and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who can score trying to turn matches, I wonder do they expect to beat Ireland now or is it a belief that they can?

Ian Foster has his critics and the public will want some reassurance that he, rather than one of the men he beat to the position, Crusaders’ head coach Scott Robertson, is the right choice to lead New Zealand to next year’s Rugby World Cup. For once the home side has questions to answer. Ireland needs to try to drive a wedge between the terrace and the team.

Since Ireland first discovered how to beat the All Blacks in Soldier Field there is a hint of a rivalry, now that both countries have enjoyed success in the fixture of late; albeit that the All Blacks will rightly point out they won the game that mattered in the 2019 World Cup in Japan. The next challenge for Ireland is to win on New Zealand soil.

The All Blacks reacted in unequivocal fashion when they were beaten in Chicago by brutalizing Ireland physically, if not always legally, in Dublin. They understand the opportunities that are presented over the course of the three Tests.

History suggests that Ireland’s best chance will come in the first Test, and they will need the impetus of a victory in their opening fixture against the Maori All Blacks. The opening Test then becomes a double-edged sword, winning for Ireland would make the tour successful no matter what else happens and it will heap pressure on an already pressurized New Zealand squad. Lose and the spectrum of tours and heavy beatings past will appear.

The only way to earn respect and silence the home support is to win

Andy Farrell will be going all in on the first week. How he juggles selection will be vital, securing a win against an unknown quantity of the Maori while maintaining a fit and healthy starting 15 for the opening skirmish in the Test series.

Ireland’s hopes are governed by the word “IF” in block capitals: IF the lineout functions and IF we get one-to-two-second rucks then the team is more than capable of winning the opening Test. IF that materializes then it is the home side that may receive the cold shoulder from the locals.

The only way to earn respect and silence the home support is to win; close doesn’t cut it as I know only too well.

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